Moonbase, Episode 7: A World Apart, Part 7

By Samuel O'Slaine

Storytelling is an art. It is the art of entertaining an audience by creating a narrative. We’ve decided to try an experiment with this upcoming serial, and that is to include the readership in the narrative process. We’ll be telling a story as a serial; we encourage suggestions that we can include in later episodes of the story, and we’ll try to incorporate these if that is possible.


With one exception, the story is aiming for plausible, without supernatural or magical interventions. We’ll not be including impossible suggestions, and we can’t guarantee inclusion of the implausible. Still, we’ll do our best.


The serial will be written on a two-week cycle. Episode 1 is here. Episode 2 is here. Episode 3 is here. Episode 4 is here. Episode 5 is here. Episode 6 is here.


We’ll take note of the suggestions in the first week after publication, and write the next part incorporating those suggestions in the second.


Put simply: you’ve a week to get your suggestions into the comment section.



A World Apart, Part 7.

John felt a little discomforted. Edith’s summary of the courting of the ladies on the base had flummoxed him. He hadn’t suspected a thing. It meant that there were rather more courting men as suspects than he had imagined. He mentioned this to Edith.

He’d said something wrong. He could tell by the way Edith looked at him without saying anything. He tried to think what he’d said wrong. He’d very carefully not complained about all this courting, which seemed to be distracting some of the people on the base.

Oh.

He’d missed the obvious. “I considered the ladies, obviously,” he bluffed.

“John Masters, up until this moment, you hadn’t considered us in the slightest. And don’t try to pretend otherwise. You’re a hopeless liar.”

“It must have been my subconscious trying to reduce the number of suspects.”

Edith raised an eyebrow. “Are you going to try and blame Freud or Jung?”

“There’s no answer that I can give that won’t dig a deeper hole, is there?”

“I am interested in seeing how deep a hole you can dig. It’s not the only possible motive, however. We need to look at the other motives, as well.”

John recognised the word “We”. Whether he wanted it or not, Edith would be helping him. “Professional dispute; personality clash; some sort of international political game; trying to cut down on people using water here; some argument; a family dispute.”

“Not to mention theft,” Edith added. “I expect you have a plan?”

“It’s a mistake to theorise before one has data.”

“That means the plan is to gather data. Since the best source of data will be the body, we’re going to have to find that. It’s either outside or in recycling. Everything on the inside ends up in recycling.”

John explained about the moon rock on the inside of the moon-suit, and how this meant that the murder was almost certainly committed outside. Edith frowned. “I don’t understand. Why?”

“The moon-suit is air-tight. That’s the whole point of it. A rock can’t get inside it outside, because that would mean vacuum could also get in. A rock sticking to the outside of the suit would get brushed off during undressing, and the trousers are the last part to come off. They’re hung up straight away, so it wouldn’t pick up anything from detritus on the ground. The only way I can see how a rock got inside was if the suit was not being worn outside, and that means whoever was wearing it – wasn’t wearing it, I guess – would have been dead.”

“What if someone put a rock inside the suit later, inside? To make people think the killing was done outside when it had been done inside, so we’d look in the wrong place.”

John considered. “If the body is inside, then it might be a distraction, I suppose. If the body is outside, then I can’t see how the rock could be anything other than a clue. Of some sort.”

Edith snorted. “If the body is inside, then the rock was a distraction, and tells us we need to look inside; if the body is outside, then the rock is a clue we should look outside for the body?”

John wouldn’t have put it quite like that. They went to check recycling. It was easier to check recycling than to go outside, so they went there first. While they were waiting to enter, Hercule Tarrode exited. John frowned. For an astronomer, Tarrode spent a lot of time checking up on recycling. John paused, and asked him about that.

“My primary work is outside, but without assistants, I have to wait until someone is free to assist. In the meantime, I do what is useful. If the Moon is to have a future, then we need water, fertile soil, and a localised atmosphere. I have written a paper on how we can get water. Fertile soil, this is a problem. We have to make our own soil that is fertile, and that happens here. It is important that we think of the next base; when we have a self-sufficient Moon Base, they will name it after me.”

“First, we have to get back. Shouldn’t you be helping with the drilling project?”

Dr Tarrode shrugged. “I know about stars. I know about decomposition, like an anti-Bizet. About drilling holes in the ground, that I am not familiar with.”

John had to ask. “An anti-Bizet?”

“He was a composer. I am a de-composer.”

John looked at Edith. Edith looked at John. They shook their heads at the joke. Once Tarrode had left, they carefully checked recycling once again. There weren’t that many places to put something the size of a body, and cutting a body up into smaller parts would be noticed. John shuddered at the thought.

He carefully checked the waste soil. They were always very careful to call it waste soil, because soil was what it would become. Every piece of waste ended up here. John and Edith checked everywhere, but there was no trace of him.

“He’s outside,” Edith said. “Big place, outside. Lots of places a body might be.”

“Not so many. He can’t be outside the crater, because it would be too hard to carry someone in a spacesuit up a slope, even in the lower gravity.”

“Why not let him walk, and then kill him there?”

John cocked his head to one side, thinking. “I hadn’t thought of that.

“You would not make a very good killer. We need to check outside.”

John pointed out that they needed a third person, and then paused. Taking a third person would involve explanations. They could ask the Old Man, but he didn’t care for going outside. He certainly objected when John had wanted to go outside with him. He said that the commander and the second-in-command being outside at the same time was a potential hazard. If there was an accident, the base would be deprived of both at the same time.

There was another factor to consider. Unless the killer had an accomplice, if the murder was done outside, then it had to be just two people going out, and one returning. Was that possible? It wasn’t right to put Edith at risk, and going out without a third person was increasing the risk.

“We need to check outside,” Edith said. “The killer and Fochs would have gone out alone, so that’s what we need to do.”

Sometimes, John thought, you just have to accept a situation. Edith was coming out with him, and he somehow needed to make it seem like it was his decision. “I’ll need someone to accompany me outside. I hate to ask, because there might be a dead body involved.”

Preparing to go outside was still a lengthy process. A is for Air; B is for Batteries; C is for Communication; D is for Dead Reckoning; E is for Exhalation; F is for Fluids. They did their own checks, then they checked each other’s suits.

As he checked Edith’s suit, a thought crossed his mind. It would be very easy to turn the knob on the air supply from the air canisters into the closed position. He wondered just how easy it would be. He thought about testing the theory. Turn it closed, then turn it open again. But it would be yet another risk. Telling Edith would eliminate the value of seeing if it was possible to do it without the person noticing.

He would try it, and then say they had to change suits.

It wasn’t as easy as it looked. Edith didn’t stand still, and it was hard to be behind someone without them turning around. If you stood close behind them, they noticed and tended to turn around.

“I need to check the back of your helmet,” was all he could think of. When he tried to adjust the air cylinder knobs, he found he had to take his gloves off, and that was awkward. If he had been intending to do this, it would have been much easier when doing the checks. That would mean having made a decision before heading out.

Well, obviously. If they had gone out in two, rather than three, the killer would already have decided.

He tried to turn the knob, and it was harder to do unobtrusively than he had thought. Even with his gloves off, it wasn’t easy. The knob was designed not to be easy to adjust. It wasn’t a good idea for it to be accidentally knocked and adjusted outside. It needed dextrous fingers, and not everyone would be able to manage it.

It was also wrong that they were able to go out as a pair when there was the rule about a minimum of three. The rule was in place for a reason, and assuming people were sensible enough to follow the rules without constant hounding wasn’t working. If he were in charge, he would have a system whereby people couldn’t go out in just pairs.

There were many things he’d learned about running a base here. He realised that he desperately wanted to be the Old Man of the next base.

First, though, they would have to survive and get back to Earth, and that meant the scientists had to come up with an answering to the drilling problem. He had to put that thought to one side. The scientists were working on it. John had to solve this problem of the killer, and let the scientists get on with their job.

John and Emily went out on to the surface. They only went a few steps from the base before pausing. They had already discussed how they would search. Such discussions would have been difficult on the surface. They had decided that the body would have to be out of sight of the base, but it also had to be somewhere plausible that the killer might persuade him to go.

When he was in charge, that would be a clear rule that he would introduce. When outside, you must always be visible to at least two people outside. It was just too easy to get into trouble out here. He snorted. If it had been the Old Man who had been killed, people could easily think he might have a motive. He did want to be in command.

Luckily, that wasn’t a motive here. Or was it? Probably not. Scientists didn’t usually care much about anything outside their field. If there had been a second metallurgist, things might be different. He almost tripped, and he admonished himself. The Moon was a vindictive place, always seeking to trap you, and needing your full concentration.

A body would have to be out of sight of anyone who casually walked from the base. That meant that it had to be outside the crater wall. It had to be close enough that it would be possible for one person to return carrying the moon-suit.

That left two directions to choose from; clockwise or anti-clockwise. John decided that was something else that needed sorting out; a global coordinate system that was useful on the Moon. They went clockwise. This decision was based on the fact that the going was slightly easier, which would make a return easier.

People quickly got used to walking in silence on the surface. It was only possible to talk via radio, and it had become the custom to keep the radio for necessary conversations relating to the work being conducted outside, and in case of emergencies.

Walking up a slope was comparatively easy. You needed to be careful not to damage the suit, so you proceeded very slowly, making sure that each foot was secure after each step. Returning was just as laborious a process. Luckily, when they had been choosing the site for the base, they had avoided the very large craters. Some of the larger craters had rim to floor depths of a medium-sized mountain. They’d chosen a small crater, little more than four miles in diameter, and with a rim height of 400 yards.

It was still a considerable walk, and one that the killer would have needed to have a good explanation to persuade Fochs to come this distance. If that was what had happened.

He called a pause, and looked back towards the base, which was now barely visible. John noticed that their footprints were barely visible, and were disappearing. There was little dust on the slope; even the lower gravity of the moon meant that it slid down the slope. Temperature changes created the dust, by cracking the rock, but it was a slow process.

Edith had kept up with him. He’d made sure he hadn’t walked too quickly. It was important to stay close together. She pointed to an indentation in the surface.

John saw immediately what she meant. If he were to want to hide a body, that was exactly the sort of spot he would choose.

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